ST. PAUL — Minnesota-Duluth squeaked into the NCAA tournament – and celebrated like crazy when it was over.
Karson Kuhlman had a goal and an assist, and the Bulldogs beat Notre Dame 2-1 Saturday night to win the school’s second NCAA hockey championship.
Jared Thomas also scored and Hunter Shepard stopped 19 shots for the Bulldogs (25-16-3). UMD also won the 2011 title at the Xcel Energy Center.
“We were fortunate enough to make the tournament and we ran with that opportunity,” Kuhlman said.
Minnesota-Duluth looked like a long shot for the 16-team NCAA field after it dropped its second game in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference tournament on March 17. The Bulldogs needed six conference finals that evening to go their way.
They did, allowing UMD to edge Minnesota by .0001 in the formula used to determine the at-large teams. Notre Dame’s overtime win over Ohio State in the Big Ten title game put the Bulldogs in the tournament.
“One day you think you owe them a little bit like a thank you and the next day you’re playing them in the national title game,” said Kuhlman, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Andrew Oglevie scored and Cale Morris made 33 saves for Notre Dame (28-10-2), winless in two national title games. The Irish lost to Boston College in 2008.
“They became that team of destiny that you’re always hoping to be at the end of the year,” Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson said.
Minnesota-Duluth lost to Denver in last year’s championship. The Bulldogs had seven seniors on that team, and then three underclassmen departed early for the NHL, including the starting goaltender.
Five of Minnesota-Duluth’s top six defensemen are freshmen, and Shepard, a sophomore, recorded a sub-2.00 goals against average with eight shutouts.
“We felt our forward group was pretty good. We were replacing scoring, but we had some good depth,” coach Scott Sandelin said. “The job that young group back there did, I think it really moved forward when Shep grabbed the net and played the way he did. It gave our whole team confidence.”
UMD has played 11 consecutive one-goal games in NCAA tournament play, winning eight of them.
For the second straight game, the Bulldogs scored two first-period goals and held on. They beat Ohio State 2-1 Thursday.
UMD took advantage of two Irish turnovers.
Pressured by Kuhlman, Notre Dame’s Jordan Gross lost the puck in the neutral zone. Jade Miller poked the puck ahead to Kuhlman at the Irish blue line, and after a brief hesitation in the right circle, the captain beat Morris with a rising shot.
An aggressive forecheck led to Thomas knocking Andrew Peeke off the puck in the right corner. The puck went to Kuhlman and back to Thomas, who banked a shot from near the goal line off Morris and in with 1:21 left in the period.
Oglevie redirected a pass from Cam Morrison for a power-play goal in the second period to get the Irish on the board.
“There was never a panic, there was never any doubt in that room,” Thomas said. “If we needed to win the game 2-1, we were going to win the game 2-1. You saw it on third-period play where we really shut them down.”
Struggling to get pucks deep, Notre Dame had just five shots in the final 20 minutes.
Since Feb. 21, 2015, UMD is 56-0-3 when taking a lead into the third period, including 23-0-1 this season.
Notre Dame had won its previous five postseason games by one goal, with the game-winners coming in the final 31 seconds of regulation or overtime.